History

Entertainers That Broke the Black Barrier

shutterstock_106934402It’s likely that when segregation is mentioned, the South will enter the conversation. And, yes, the South was segregated until the early 1960s when the Civil Rights Bill was passed.

In that same conversation probably Las Vegas would not enter anyone’s mind. However, in those days of segregation, Vegas was strictly segregated. This was in spite of the fact that some of its most popular performers were black.

In those days, the city was referred to as “The Mississippi of the West.” Often, when a black entertainer finished his or her act, he or she was forced to leave the Strip. They couldn’t stay there. They couldn’t eat there. They couldn’t gamble there. It was segregated.

It was not an easy task to break through the race barrier of that era, the 40s and 50s. But, there were some brave entertainers who pushed the envelope and eventually brought down the wall of prejudice. Some of those early civil rights pioneers in Las Vegas were Josephine Baker, Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte and others.

Pearl Bailey deserves a special note because she was the first black entertainer to be allowed to stay at a Strip hotel. Ms. Bailey played the Flamingo Hotel soon after it opened. It was Bugsy Siegel himself who invited her and basically gave in to all her demands in spite of some opposition from wealthy white patrons. Bugsy was an evil man, but he did the right thing in this instance.

Frank Sinatra was another person who helped break down the race barrier. In 1956 Nat King Cole was playing at the Sands, home of the Rat Pack. Sinatra took notice that after Cole’s show he was not allowed in the eating area. He wanted to know why and inquired of a valet.

He was informed that blacks were not allowed in the restaurant. This made Sinatra extremely angry. He demanded that Cole be admitted to the dining area. He threatened dire consequences if his wishes were not fulfilled. There were few in Las Vegas that would deny Sinatra anything. The very next night Nat King Cole was Frank Sinatra’s guest for dinner. Thus, Belafonte became the first black man to eat at the Sand’s Garden Room. He may have been the first black to eat in any casino dining area.

Harry Belafonte deserves mention too. He had the guts to buck the system. As a black man, he could perform at the Sands, and at this time even stay there. But, he was not allowed to gamble. So, he marched into the casino one day and placed a bet on a blackjack table. As you might imagine, the dealer froze when he realized who placed the bet. He didn’t know what to do. He waited a short time until he was sure that management was not going to stop the game. He accepted Belafonte’s bet and history was made. A black man gambled on the Strip.

Sometimes, it takes courageous people to challenge cultural standards. In this case, it was a good thing.

 

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